Something Like a Phenomenon

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs look straight into your soul
Autumn DeWilde
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Show Your Bones

If the Yeah Yeah Yeahs ever release an official mission statement, it might be "We do whatever the hell we want." (Runners-up: "Leotards for all!" and "Can you believe we played the VMAs?") They exude a certain confidence that has carried them through every off-kilter costume change and unlikely television appearance. When they released their debut EP in 2001, it was about time Generation Y had their own set of oddball heroes. The Brooklyn band's earliest caterwauling assaults were the closest thing to punk anyone born after 1980 had ever seen, and Karen O was Iggy Pop in blood-red lipstick. Hers was a world full of Tourettes-inflected come-ons and incest jokes, but it was that crazed toddler smile, so wide and manic, that convinced others to follow. She was the art-school kid who wandered into a dive bar and found a new life in the delights of spitting Pabst at strangers. Every time she climbed on stage (and sometimes when she fell off of it) she was spreading the Word. And the children responded, "Yes. We too can wear lam like an '80s prom queen."

Despite loving them for their unrestrained approach, fans have already been caught off-guard by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' recently released second full-length, Show Your Bones. I admit I didn't know what to make of the band's more accessible sound on my first few listens. Or the next few. But I'm getting there. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' date with the night has ended, perhaps with a fake phone number from O, who moved out to sunny L.A. in 2004. Show Your Bones isn't about palm trees and surfboards and scary tans, but it definitely feels more like daylight than the back-alley anthems we're used to. Advertisement

The album's leadoff track and first single, "Gold Lion" plays it straight and sounds like a Beck song. A simple acoustic guitar and drum riff backs nonsensical boho poetry: "Gold lion's gonna tell me where the light is/Take our hands out of control." Here, O's reigned-in vocals aren't the greatest disappointment. Guitarist Nick Zinner used to carve spiky landscapes out of layers of textured noise. (The studio stuff comes second only to the live show, when he strips the compositions down to one impressive line.) The preamble to Bones would imply that Zinner's latest innovation is the, um, acoustic guitar. And drummer Brian Chase, who used to drive the group from his spot behind the toms, now sounds like he's just keeping time.

More recognizable descendents of the group's previous songs appear further into the album. "Fancy" unleashes O's much-missed feral yowls over crunchy, slow-burning guitarand hey, there are those toms. "Phenomena," a cocksure strut, borrows its namesake line"You're something like a phenomena"grammatical error and all, from Liquid Liquid, perhaps via Grandmaster Flash's own quote grab. Elsewhere, the seedy, all-night party mantras of 2003's Fever to Tell ("Let's do this like a prison break/I wanna see you squeal and shake") give way to more grown-up aphorisms. Spontaneity no longer seems to be a concern for the newly introspective O: "Take these wings and stow them safe away/I'll wear them on another rainy day," she coos on "Cheated Hearts." The girl who used to call out the bitches and the dicks is less confrontational, as if proving herself is a task already checked off the to-do list. Seeing her softer side is a little like finding out that the drunk girl who shows up to every after-bar holds down a respectable 9-to-5 as a librarian.

And realizing that the cool kids have normal, human feelings makes me fall in like with them all over again. Despite the one-time rioters' new crop of tamer numbers, nothing feels as exposed as Fever's minor hit, "Maps." "Warrior" comes close, but while its predecessor charmed with its portrayal of a girl in love, the new song's lines ("Men, they like me 'cause I'm a warrior") come across like cheerless confessions.

Bones proves that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs can deliver roughed-up pop without the shock and awe, but the stylistic change still feels odd. It's as if they're offering a compromise no one asked for. The ever-impulsive band has made an impulsive move to be less impulsive, and as a result, the album's greatest fault is that much of it sounds so careful, so planned, so un-punk. But there's a great off-the-cuff moment at the very end of "Turn Into" when O goofs off, one last time. "I know what I know," she sighs for the dozenth time. "I know what Iyes [chuckle]."

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